Friday, January 21, 2011

Guest Post from Jim Spadaccini on Computer-Based Exhibits

Jim Spadaccini is the Director of Ideum and Principal Investigator for the NSF-funded Open Exhibits initiative.  In the last century, he was Director of Interactive Media at the Exploratorium.  Jim was kind enough to share some thoughts about computers and exhibits with ExhibiTricks readers:

Computer-Based Exhibits: Challenges and Changes

Having been in the field for nearly 20 years, I have to admit many of the computer-based exhibits developed by and for museums have fallen short of expectations.

Most computer interactives found in museums are isolating, information-heavy experiences: single-user kiosks with layers of text, images, and the occasional video. 

Most exhibit developers would agree that good exhibits, generally, are ones that encourage visitor engagement and social interaction. These exhibits tend to be more experiential than informational.   

While I believe computer-based exhibits have not lived up to their promise, I also believe that is beginning to change.

Multitouch screens, gestural interfaces, and intuitive multiuser interactions are emerging. Multiple screens, spherical displays, networked exhibits, and other more compelling computer-based installations are becoming more common. 

 ( A group of visitors to Adventure Science Center in Nashville Tennessee, gather around 100” multitouch, multiuser exhibit exploring the EM Spectrum.)

These more complex installations don’t ensure that an exhibit is more engaging, but many of these technologies simply weren’t available or were prohibitively expensive back in the ‘90s.  It’s great to have new options .

While these changes are very positive, a number of challenges still remain when it comes to computer-based exhibits.

Computer-based exhibits are expensive to develop; they quickly go out of date and are rarely updated. Also, the software is almost never shared between museums.  (There isn’t really a software equivalent of the Exploratorium Cookbooks or the ASTC Cheapbooks.)

Like other types of exhibits, computer-based ones are also rarely evaluated. Since by their nature they use new technology, it can be especially hard to try to anticipate and shape the visitor experience.

While these issues are deeply rooted in the field, the open source software movement has provided a model that can help with some of these challenges. Last fall, Ideum and several museum partners were awarded a National Science Foundation grant for an open source software initiative called Open Exhibits . I’m hoping that this initiative can make a significant contribution to the field.

Open Exhibits provides free software modules, templates and eventually whole exhibits to museums and other educational organizations. The project focuses on mostly multitouch and multiuser software. Right now there are software modules that handle images and video and connect with sites like YouTube and Flickr. These modules are multitouch- and multiuser-enabled.

We are also developing other types of software, such as an innovative way to connect with databases (OpenAPI) and this week we are going to release a module that allows easy offering for Microsoft’s gesture-based Kinect camera system.  (Check out this Ideum blog post for more info.) 

(The author tries out the new Open Exhibits module for Microsoft Kinect motion controller system. This free module will allow the $150 Kinect device to connect to virtually any Open Exhibit software module.)

We are focusing on emerging technology with an emphasis on physical computing. We are looking to help build a platform that will allow museum professionals to create the next generation of computer-based interactives. For now, we are doing most of the development, but we are nurturing a community site that will hopefully empower others to develop their own computer-based exhibits.

The Open Exhibits project was funded in September 2010 and within 45 days we launched the community website.  Now, just 63 days later, we have over 400 members, have had over 1,000 software downloads, and we are beginning to get contributions from other Open Exhibits members.  (You can see these numbers change in real time on our website, which has a dashboard design.)

Along with software, the site contains research and survey results and other practical information for designers and developers.   We will be publishing many of the findings from the research and evaluation components of the project.

Open Exhibits is a three-year project, so we have nearly 1,000 days left to continue to grow and facilitate the community and to hopefully make an impact. 

Please check out Open Exhibits at:, and join us!

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